Jonathan Safran Foer’s remarkable first novel explores Jewish life in the Ukraine during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Everything Is Illuminated is, however, much more. It is as much about the nature of storytelling as about the story it tells. Foer’s style and narrative technique make the impact of his dramatic, funny, sad story even greater.
Foer is also one of the protagonists, visiting the Ukraine in 1997 seeking Augustine, a woman who saved his grandfather, Safran, during the Holocaust. (The novel is inspired by a real journey for this purpose.) Safran’s first wife, Zosha, died during the Holocaust and he met his second wife in a displaced- persons camp. Safran died suddenly shortly after immigrating to the United States. Jonathan’s grandmother has given him a photograph of Augustine, and he hopes to find her still alive and also to find Trachimbrod, the shtetl where his grandfather had lived.
Jonathan’s guide and translator is Alex, who is curious about America, where he hopes to settle someday. Alex’s sometimes distant father works for Heritage Touring, which guides American Jews to locations in their ancestors’ homeland. Because Alex does not have a driver’s license, they are accompanied on their journey by Alex’s grandfather (also named Alex), who drives although he claims to be legally blind, and the grandfather’s flatulent dog, Sammy Davis Junior Junior.
The structure of Everything Is Illuminated is complicated. There are Alex’s letters to Jonathan after the writer has returned to America. In these, Alex talks about his family life with his father, his beloved thirteen-year-old brother (Little Igor), grandfather, and Sammy. He comments on the manuscript in progress that Jonathan has been sending him. Alex also acknowledges Jonathan’s observations about his eccentric style of English. Then there are the chapters narrated by Alex describing the search for Augustine.
The other sections of the novel are Jonathan’s narratives about two of his ancestors, his great-great-great- great-great grandmother, Brod, and his grandfather, Safran. In 1791, when Brod is an infant, the wagon of her father, Trachim, tumbles into the river Brod, and only the baby is rescued. The shtetl holds a lottery for her custody, and she is won by the seventy-two-year-old Yankel, who names her for the river where she was found. In a later development, Yankel wins another contest and renames the shtetl Trachimbrod. Brod grows up thinking Yankel is her father.
Brod gives new meaning to Yankel’s life. His two children are dead and his wife has left him. Born Safran, he had been a leading citizen in the shtetl until he lost his usurer’s license following a scandal and trial. Leaving the shtetl, he returns three years later as Yankel, the name of the bureaucrat who ran away with his wife, and resumes his previous life. The myriad ways in which people are unable to control their destinies and their efforts to do so are one of Foer’s many themes. Yankel sees the baby as a chance to live without shame.
The shtetl comes to have an elaborate celebration on Trachimday, reenacting the baby’s rescue from the river, but Yankel never tells the young Brod she is the subject of this event. Shielding her from the truth about her origin and himself, he creates stories to distract her, even inventing a perfect wife he lost somewhere in the distant past, composing letters from her to himself. So that he will not lose touch with the truth, Yankel begins writing fragments of his life story on the ceiling of his bedroom. Foer constantly examines the elusiveness of truth, the randomness of memory, and the ways art can be used to capture and control them.
By the age of ten, Brod is the most desirable female in the shtetl, but she is also the most melancholy, discovering 613 unique sadnesses. She loves the idea of love even though she can love no one, not even Yankel. People can live together and care for each other without truly knowing each other, seeing only themselves in the other person. There are gaps of understanding in all relationships in the novel. Brod is not even certain about the truth of her own nature. Eventually, her beauty and enigmatic qualities drive every man in the shtetl, even those already married, to propose to her.
Then, one Trachimday, she meets her future husband Shalom, called the Kolker because he is from Kolki, and after several melodramatic events, including the death of Yankel, everything changes. She continues loving Shalom even after an accident at the flour mill leaves him with a piece of metal in his head that slowly drives him mad. Brod also changes his name to Safran, something she recalls seeing on Yankel’s ceiling. Following his death, Safran’s body is bronzed by the shtetl, becoming an almost religious totem to...
(The entire section is 1985 words.)